When projecting who the key contributors will be heading into each new season, it’s easy to overlook seniors who once showed promise, but whose play has leveled off since their arrival onto the scene. Yet, every year a certain number of 4th or 5th year players raise their game, somewhat out of the blue, and take on leadership roles that are hard to measure, yet invaluable to any team. I like to call it them “senior bump” because it is an ascent in play that seems to have no rhyme or reason other than it’s their senior year and something clicks.
An obvious example of this phenomenon would be the play of wide receiver Chris Brown in 2015. He burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2012 with a huge 50 yard bomb from Everett Golson in the 4th quarter at Oklahoma that led to Notre Dame taking the lead and securing the best win of the Brian Kelly era. It looked like he could be a Will Fuller type player, yet entered 2015 with just 56 receptions, 813 yards, and two touchdowns for his career. It’s safe to say there weren’t many expectations of him heading into his final season at Notre Dame. Despite that, he turned in easily his finest campaign, tallying career highs in catches (48), yards (597), and touchdowns (4).
Perhaps more importantly, he emerged as the leader of a receiving core that was long on talent but devoid of an obvious answer leadership wise. For anyone who watched the “A Season With” on Showtime, it was Brown who consistently picked up his teammates and lauded any good play. His praise of Corey Robinson following his touchdown catch against USC–during a season in which Robinson had many struggles–illustrated the leadership that Brown brought to the 2015 team.
The senior bump has been a trend during the Brian Kelly era as we’ve seen Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, Jonas Gray, Theo Riddick, TJ Jones, and Zeke Motta all turn in the best seasons of their careers during their final year, when expectations were somewhat measured heading the season. This isn’t something that should necessarily be attributed to Brian Kelly of course; anyone who has played football can think of an example of this on their own team or perhaps it happened to them. For whatever reason, things just seem to click for some players heading into their senior year.
As we look towards the 2016 season and team 128, I’ve identified four players who are good candidates to experience a senior bump based on their prior play and the level of expectation most fans have as they embark on their final year.
Corey Robinson- Wide Receiver
Much like Chris Brown, Robinson wasn’t a very highly touted recruit coming out of high school; he was mostly known as David Robinson’s son and a guy who had nice size, but didn’t seem to have the skill level of others in his class–Will Fuller and Torri Hunter Jr. specifically. Also like Brown, Robinson made a pretty good name for himself during his freshman season. He caught 9 balls for 157 yards and touchdown, as well as drawing some key pass interference penalties against Michigan State that led to Notre Dame scores and an upset over the Spartans. He followed that up with a very good sophomore campaign that included 40 catches for 539 yards and five touchdowns, and was featured by eight receptions for 99 yards and two TD’s–should have been three TD’s, cheating refs man–at #2 Florida State.
Those stats make his 2015 decline pretty shocking. He dipped to 16 catches for 200 yards and just the one score against USC. It also included some key drops, most notably against Clemson on a two point conversion where Notre Dame had to use a timeout because Robinson initially wasn’t on the field. Following the bowl game there was some talk of Robinson skipping his final season to study abroad (when I say talk I mean internet rumors), which brings into question his focus on football. Heading into 2016, many fans look at Robinson as someone who is likely to be passed by younger players at the Z position and Notre Dame does have some exciting prospects on the rise.
It has been reported that Robinson was dealing with a couple physical ailments to his lower body during his junior year, which if corrected could spring him into a solid senior year. The word is Robinson is in fact going to play his final season at Notre Dame, which would lead us to believe that he is committed to the football team and making the most out of the final year of his career. He is clearly a very intelligent young man whose leadership potential is through the roof and if he fully commits himself, could see the best season of his time at Notre Dame be his final one.
James Onwualu- Linebacker
Onwualu has been nothing but steady since he arrived on campus in 2013 from St. Paul, Minnesota. He began his career as a wide receiver, mostly as a blocker, although he did catch two passes for 34 yards, and was a mainstay on special teams where he registered six tackles. He moved to linebacker prior to his sophomore year and played mostly a reserve role, tallying 24 tackles and four tackles for loss.
He earned the starting job at SAM linebacker heading into 2015 and his play can be characterized as good, but not great. He finished the year with 38 tackles in 11 games, he missed two games and most of a third with a knee injury, and garnered six tackles for loss and three sacks. His season was highlighted by seven tackles against USC and a big sack against JT Barrett of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. He did struggle at times, notably he was replaced by the bigger Greer Martini against Navy because Onwualu was having trouble dealing with the fullback dive which led to some big plays for scores late in the first half.
Onwualu’s main problem has been his tweener status–he’s not quite fast enough to play safety and not quite big enough to be truly effective at linebacker. His main assets are his gamer mentality, his lack of fear playing against much bigger opponents, and his role as a team player. These are the factors which lead to optimism heading into his senior season. He’s likely to put on a few more pounds, leveling the playing field against the bigger offensive linemen. It will be his third season playing linebacker, which will lead to a greater understanding of the position and his role in the defense. And most importantly, he seems like the type of person who finds a way to be on the winning end of life. It was chronicled during the season that he interned over the summer with Bank of America, to which he achieved great success, and is playing a position that isn’t really suited for him, yet he found his way into the starting lineup.
Will Onwualu ever be a star for Notre Dame? That is an unlikely proposition. But, he is already an underrated player, whose play gets lost in the struggles of the defense as a whole. Name this player from the 2012 defense, who most Notre Dame fans think of rather fondly: 11 games, 39 tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception, no sacks. That would be Danny Spond, who pretty much had the same season in 2012 that Onwualu just turned in last year, while playing a very similar position.
Devin Butler – Cornerback
Most of those who follow Notre Dame weren’t too thrilled with the idea of Devin Butler taking over for injured KeiVarae Russell against Stanford, and somewhat for good reason. He had struggled in his previous starts late in the 2014 season against Louisville and USC most notably, and he was replaced by the previous starter Cody Riggs in the bowl game, even while Riggs was not 100%.
The trouble with Butler has always been his lack of top end speed, and it’s a little unfair to him because he was recruited to play in Bob Diaco’s cover 2 and soft coverage schemes. He was exposed last year against first round pick Davante Parker from Louisville and the speed of USC while playing more aggressive man defense in Brian VanGorder’s scheme. Unfortunately, this is an issue that is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon as Butler doesn’t look to get faster, and VanGorder isn’t that big on catering his scheme to his players.
However, there is always the looming possibility of a move to safety for Butler, a move that a good many have been calling for since last spring. Either way, it’s possible that Butler could go the way of Zeke Motta, a player seen as an athletic liability, but was able to put together a very solid senior season both as a player and a leader.
Max Redfield – Safety
If there were ever a player that needed to proverbial light to come on, it’s Redfield. He is possibly the most maddening player on the Irish team with tons of athletic ability and little on field production to show for it. At times he has shown himself to be a solid tackler, with double digit tackles in five career games coming against the likes for Arizona State, Clemson, LSU and Stanford. Yet, you only need one hand to count the number of plays he’s made in the passing game and he’s been benched on two separate occasions in his short career.
He is reminiscent of former USC safety Taylor Mays, who could supposedly run a sub 4.4 40 at 6’3 230, yet never made a meaningful impact on the football field except the occasional big hit that would lead to penalties. Such has been the case for Redfield, and with his suspension prior to the Fiesta Bowl for showing up late too many times to team commitments, there is the thought that Notre Dame might not even want him back for 2016.
There are a couple reasons to think Redfield could actually fulfill his immense potential in his final year. First, it essentially amounts to a contract year as he’d enter the NFL draft following the season. A player with his ability coupled with one solid season at Notre Dame could push him into the top three rounds easily.
Second, Notre Dame is bringing in about 700 defensive backs this recruiting cycle, including early enrollees Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill at safety. Should Redfield falter, he could get passed up by the younger, but also similarly gifted freshman.
There should be doubt as to whether Redfield will actually live up to his hype, we’ve really seen no evidence that this will occur, but it’s the offseason which means it’s time to think positive.